There is a good theory that explains why Agnes Varda’s Jane B. for Agnes V. was never officially distributed in the United States. Apparently, the few distributors that saw it after Varda completed it in 1988 concluded that it was too abstract and therefore too risky to sign. So until recently, it had been screened only a few times at festivals and retrospectives.
Having just viewed Jane B. for Agnes V. for the first time ever, I can agree that it is different. It is a fluid experimental project that matches the audacity of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films and the quiet elegance of Eric Rohmer’s best films, but feels distinctively modern. There is a side of it that easily could have been envisioned by the late Chantal Akerman as well. There was a script for it, but once Varda started shooting the film evolved and actually expanded in different directions. (Le Petit Amout aka Kung-Fu Master! emerged as a natural continuation of this expansion).
The basic idea behind Jane B. for Agnes V. was to sum up Jane Birkin, the legendary actress and singer whose work and relationship with Serge Gainsbourg defined an entire era, but not in a conventional manner. So its foundation would be similar to that of a traditional documentary feature, but because Birkin’s persona was so complex it was agreed that it would be best if the film explored it from a variety of different angles and without any restrictions. In other words, Varda and Birkin were free to experiment and mix facts with ideas which would also recreate the environment in which Birkin emerged.
In a long and very informative interview included on this release, Varda describes Jane B. for Agnes V. as a fictional portrait. It is a good description if one focuses only on the fact that the film attempts to understand Birkin and deconstruct her legacy. But it is also a slightly misleading description because it ignores the fact that Varda is an integral part of it. Indeed, the visual style and tone of the film, both of which are essential to understanding Birkin the artist and Birkin the dreamer, also allow one to explore Varda’s creative genius. So when the final credits roll one walks away not only with a much richer mental image of Birkin, but also of Varda and her art.
There are a couple of unexpected cameos. Jean-Pierre Léaud (Bed & Board) pops up and instantly makes an impression with some typically excellent facial expressions. Alain Souchon (One Deadly Summer) is a quiet charmer. The iconic Italian actress Laura Betti (Novecento) becomes Lardy. A very young Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) also quickly steps in front of the camera.
Varda did not have a big budget to work with, but many of the dream sequences look strikingly stylish. She was assisted by award winning production designer Olivier Radot, whose credits include such visually impressive films as Queen Margot, Gabrielle, and Coco Before Chanel.